The Missing Buildings of Harvard Yard

It’s hard to imagine the hub of Harvard’s campus without the beautiful red-brick colonial structures (and Canaday, I guess) we recognize today, but things weren’t always this way.
By Christian S. Arndt

Harvard is an old institution, to say the least. We all know the story. What is not so well-known, however, is the history of the buildings within the Yard. It’s hard to imagine the hub of Harvard’s campus without the beautiful red-brick colonial structures (and Canaday, I guess) we recognize today, but things weren’t always this way.

Peyntree House, the first building ever used by Harvard College, was built by William Peyntree around 1633. Used to house both the College’s headmaster and its students, it was replaced in 1644 (becoming the first of a long list of headmaster’s residencies) and has long since rotted, leaving little physical evidence to attest to what it looked like. During the construction of the Red Line, small pieces of wood were once found just outside the yard by Dudley House. Brass plaques mark where the front corners of the house are believed to have been.

Then, in 1651, Harvard purchased a home from Edward Goffe. The “Goffe College,” as it was called, was located right next to the Peyntree House, albeit a bit closer to the modern-day CVS. Again, this two-story building served both as living quarters for staff and students, as well as space for cooking, eating, learning, and working. This, too, has since rotted away.

Next came the first iteration of Harvard Hall. Little exists to illuminate Harvard Hall the First’s appearance, but it is evident from student notes and other documents that the building was two stories and built from a combination of wood and brick. Students slept in closet-sized spaces with beds. This building, unsuprisingly, eventually fell down due to rot.

Harvard’s first completely brick building was known as the Indian College. It was built where Matthews Hall currently stands around the year 1655 to house Native American students who came to Harvard on a grant from the Episcopal Church and to provide more space for teaching.

Soon after the decline of Harvard Hall I in 1671, the college built Harvard Hall II. This stood three stories high and was known for its decorative roof balustrades (which were added in 1691), its many dormers, and its atypical architecture, which drew from styles ranging from Medieval to Renaissance to Jacobean. It burned down on January 24, 1764.

At the beginning of the 18th century (in 1719, to be exact), the first Harvard building that still remains standing, Massachusetts Hall, was built. However, its innards have been remodeled multiple times. In 1869, it was transformed into two large, 4-story lecture halls, and didn’t become the Mass Hall we know today until well into the 20th century.

Dane Hall was built to accommodate the law school in 1832. It became a nuisance to the construction of Matthews Hall in 1873. To remedy this problem, the College took it apart and moved it 70 feet south, piece by piece. It then burned down in 1918.

Gore Hall is, perhaps, the most famous building no longer in Harvard Yard. It was built in 1838 on the current foundational stamp of Widener Library. The building was shaped like a cross with small octagonal towers on each point. It was used as the College’s main library, and was considered one of the most beautiful buildings in the area. When Cambridge became a city in 1846, it was the feature of the city seal. It sank with the Titanic, so to speak­. Gore Hall was demolished to clear the way for Widener.

Appleton Chapel was constructed as the College’s main chapel in 1858, and demolished in 1913 to make way for Memorial Church.

Hunt Hall marks the latest demolition in the Yard. Built in 1895 to house the Fogg Museum of Art, this was another of Harvard’s more famous buildings, and was well known for its grandeur. It was torn down in 1973 to build Canaday.

Over the course of Harvard’s long history, the University has adapted to many changes, in all forms. The modern-day Yard offers some insight into that history, but it’s important to remember the changes we can no longer see as well.

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